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Disposing of Unused Drugs

Disposing of Unused Drugs

Recommendations for disposing of leftover or expired medicines

Drug take-back programs are the secure and environmentally sound way to dispose of leftover prescriptions. The FDA, the DEA, the EPA, and local agencies all recommend secure medicine take-back as the safest medicine disposal method.

  • FDA – How To Dispose of Unused Medicines “Is your medicine cabinet full of expired drugs or medications you no longer use? How should you dispose of them?  Many community-based drug “take-back” programs offer the best option.”
  • DEA Drug Disposal Information provides resources on the DEA’s Rule for take-back of controlled substances and locations of Authorized Collectors for take-back of controlled substances. Flyers for the DEA’s National Drug Take-back Initiative state: “Unused prescription drugs thrown in the trash can be retrieved and abused or illegally sold. Unused drugs that are flushed contaminate the water supply. Proper disposal of unused drugs saves lives and protects the environment. Take-back programs are the best way to dispose of old drugs.”
  • EPA - Collecting and Disposing of Unwanted Medicines “EPA encourages the public to take advantage of pharmaceutical take-back collection programs that accept prescription or over-the-counter drugs, as these programs offer a safe and environmentally-conscious way to dispose of unwanted medicines.”

In areas where there are no drug take-back programs, federal and local agencies advise people to throw medicines in the trash as an interim or last resort measure.  However, some local governments prohibit disposal of waste household medicines down the sewer or in the solid waste stream. 

The problem with throwing leftover medicines in the trash

Throwing potentially dangerous unused drugs in your household trash bin is not secure, not recommended by the DEA for controlled substances, and does not prevent pharmaceuticals from being released into our environment.

  • The FDA, DEA, and EPA all recommend medicine take-back programs as the best method for safe disposal of unused medicines, and only suggest putting medicines in the trash if there is no drug take-back program available. See FDA’s How To Dispose of Unused Medicines.
  • In-home trash disposal methods direct residents to mix leftover pills with kitty litter or coffee grounds to reduce some of the risks of diversion from the trash. This can be messy, and puts residents at risk of exposure to pill dust and residues – especially if residents crush up the pills or dissolve them in liquids. These methods can be difficult for large volumes of pills. There is no evidence that residents are willing to follow these procedures to hide medicines in the trash. Secure medicine take-back is safer.
  • The DEA wants leftover medicines that are controlled substances collected and destroyed so addicts cannot retrieve them. According to the DEA, “sewering (disposal by flushing down a toilet or drain) and landfill disposal (mixing controlled substances with undesirable items such as kitty litter or coffee grounds and depositing them in a garbage collection) are examples of current methods of disposal that do not meet the non-retrievable standard.” Federal Register 79 (174): page 53547. September, 2014.
  • U.S.G.S. sampling and peer-reviewed research studies show that pharmaceuticals are commonly found in landfill leachate when leachate is pumped from landfills to wastewater treatment facilities. Because such treatment plants cannot remove or degrade them effectively, pharmaceutical chemicals are released into waterways.
  • Oregon agencies do not even test for the presence of pharmaceutical drugs in our state’s waterways. Most recommend “coordinated prescription drug disposal” to keep drugs out of Oregon’s water. 

Drug take-back and reducing abuse and poisonings

Public health leaders, substance abuse professionals, health professionals and law enforcement agencies support medicine take-back as part of a comprehensive prevention strategy for medicine abuse, addiction, and overdoses. Safe storage of medicines in the home and secure disposal of medicines when they are no longer needed reduces the supply of medicines that could be misused.

Secure drug take-back is part one of the four pillars of a comprehensive prevention approach for reducing medicine abuse:

Pillar 1: Education - Educate Health Care Providers About Opioid Pain Medicine Prescribing

Pillar 2: Monitoring - Enhance Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs

Pillar 3: Disposal - Increase Medicine Return/Take-back and Disposal Programs

Pillar 4: Enforcement - Address Diversion and Pill Mills

National Drug Control Strategy. 2015. White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Pages 87-101.